South Asia expert Michael Kugelman tells DW why the assassination of “Islamic State” leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed, in a US drone strike will not affect the militant group’s activities in the region.
Hafiz Saeed Khan (center in photo) was killed in a US drone strike on July 26 near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, US and Afghan officials confirmed Friday, August 12. Khan was responsible for the so-called province of the “Islamic State” (IS), which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of neighboring countries.
The death of the regional chief is a major blow to the militant group, which has sought to expand its sway from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A number of former Taliban fighters have switched loyalty to IS and are now fighting under its banner in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghan security forces have launched a where the group has captured some territory.
In a DW interview, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, discusses the expansion of IS in Afghanistan as well as the impact of Hafiz Saeed’s death on the group’s operations.
DW: How big a blow is the death of Hafiz Saeed Khan for IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Mickael Kugelman: It certainly is a big blow, but by no means a knockout punch. Khan will be replaced and IS will continue to build out its presence. So from an operational standpoint, the calculus has not changed. I do think it has an impact on morale, however. IS leaders in this region have been hit before, and an aggressive campaign of US air power has been actively hunting them down. The hit on Khan will underscore for IS the challenges it faces in building out a truly sustainable presence in this part of the world.
How strong is IS in the so-called Khorasan region, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
It depends on how you define “strong.” From the perspective of brand appeal, it’s fairly strong. In Afghanistan, you’ve got several thousand militants willing to abandon the Taliban and throw in their lot with IS. And in both countries, IS literature and flags have been seen, which suggests a certain level of appeal. And of course, there have been several attacks claimed by IS, which means that there are militants in both countries willing to carry out assaults in its name – and possibly with guidance from central authorities in the Middle East.
But let’s not overstate the notion of strength. What has set IS apart from other Islamist terror groups in recent years is its ability to take over large amounts of territory. All that IS has been able to do in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is control some small pockets of territory in eastern Afghanistan – and Afghan forces, US air power, and, significantly, Taliban forces have successfully pushed IS fighters back.
IS simply does not have the numbers, in terms of full-fledged members, that it does in the Middle East and even in Europe, where you’ve had a critical mass of people migrate to the Middle East to join the group. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, relatively few militants have gone to the Middle East to join the group.
IS has claimed responsibility for two recent attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Do you think the group is changing its tactics in the region and will continue to carry out more attacks albeit on a smaller scale?
There is a lot of uncertainty as to whether IS was really behind these attacks, and if so in what way. There is something to be said for the possibility that IS claimed these attacks even though it wasn’t behind them, in order to prove it still has clout – especially at a time when it is increasingly on the defensive because of the blows it is suffering in Iraq and Syria.
My understanding is that IS drew on the brand appeal it can count on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and inspired local militants in those two countries to stage attacks in its name, possibly with guidance and other forms of non-operational support from IS central. This allows IS to draw media headlines and prove its street credentials, so to speak, among unaffiliated radicals in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ominously, we could see this dynamic play out more and more. However, if IS continues to lose territory in the Middle East and becomes increasingly on the defensive, its appeal as a bold and brash jihadist group may be blunted among impressionable militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan – and beyond.
Can the Afghan government, which is facing internal rifts, handle the situation?
The environment in Afghanistan is simply not hospitable for a deep presence of IS. You certainly have alarming levels of insecurity and lawlessness, which works in IS’ favor. But on the other hand, Afghanistan is not nearly as sectarian as is Syria and Iraq, and IS has thrived on deep sectarian divisions. Also, most militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, are closely aligned with al Qaeda, IS’ rival. They are also mostly adherents of the Deobandi Muslim school, unlike IS, which is Salafist.
The Taliban, at least in the short term, is a much bigger beneficiary of Afghan government weakness, and possible state failure, than is IS. The Taliban is the long-established king of the hill of militancy in Afghanistan, and it will only get stronger as the government weakens there. It is also in a position to fight back against advances made by IS-aligned fighters in Afghanistan.
What measures do the Afghan government and its foreign allies need to take to rein in IS?
Kabul and its allies are actually on the right track with their anti-IS push. Afghan forces supported by US air power have been able to cut back its advances, especially as they have been helped by an unlikely ally in the Taliban. At this point, the presence of IS is sufficiently modest in Afghanistan that even fledgling Afghan forces – again with support from foreign allies – can keep it at bay.
What we have to worry about, however, are future mergers – either marriages of convenience between the Taliban and IS, or, even more alarming, between al Qaeda and IS. Both are possible. Already, there are reports of Taliban and IS fighters banding together in eastern Afghanistan to take on foreign troops. And if IS’ central leadership were to be destroyed, the group’s remnants could agree to reunite with al Qaeda. Nothing is out of the question. All these terror groups are cut from the same cloth, and cooperation can never be ruled out.
However, all this said, at this point in time, IS, while a considerable threat in Afghanistan, does not pose the danger that the Taliban does in the country.
Michael Kugelman is a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.